Ragnar Axelsson – Arctic Heroes, Where the world is melting

Ragnar Axelsson – Arctic Heroes: Where the World is Melting

The Icelandic photographer considers the Greenlandic sled dogs to be among the greatest heroes ever known in the northern reaches. Shot in black and white, his series is a homage to both the dogs and to the Arctic way of life, that is threatened with extinction by the devastating effects of global warming.

“Imagine waking up early one morning in the world’s northernmost settlement — midwinter, pitch black outside. The baying of a lonesome dog pierces the silence. Outside, it is bitterly cold. The village itself seems to be asleep. No one is up and about. The howling multiplies as the village dogs wake each other up.” With this description, Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson takes us along on his expedition to the far north. He has been taking pictures in the Arctic for over 40 years, so he knows this icy world like few other photographers, having published numerous series and many books on the place.

In his LOBA series, it is the sled dog that is the centre of attention. The motifs that make up the impressive black and white series were taken between 1987 and 2019. Initially, they were photographed with various Leica M cameras, and more recently with a Leica SL, a Leica SL2 and Leica M Monochrom 246.

“Photographs have changed the world, stopped wars, and shifted mindsets. A photograph plays a part in opening people’s eyes to what is happening.”

Greenlandic sled dogs play an important role in the inhospitable and surreal landscape, but their importance is rarely noticed. “The plaintive call of the Greenlandic sled dog bears with it an unexpected solace that soothes the soul,” Axelsson says. “Its wistful song is the story of the greatest heroes the North has ever known; heroes who have made it possible for mankind to reach both of the Earth’s poles. A tenacious creature that, at the bleakest point in a raging Arctic storm, will bring its hunters home safe and sound. The song of Greenland's dogs is one that has echoed through the ages. There is perhaps a message in its sorrowful baying that ought to heeded: the world around it is quickly changing.”

The photographer considers that the friendship between man and dog is a story that has to be told, both in words and images. The hunter’s life is changing because of climate change: the ice is getting thinner, and hunting is becoming more difficult and often extremely dangerous. Years ago, there were 30,000 dogs in Greenland. There are now about 12,000. Thus, the photographer speaks of a dying breed, as machines like snow scooters are taking over. The Greenlandic sled dog is among the oldest and most courageous and fearless dogs on Earth. The species is around 9,000 years old, and has made Greenland its home for 4,000 years. Along with the Arctic culture and way of life, the dogs also are endangered. The summer sea ice and the glaciers of the North are the Earth’s refrigerator, helping maintain bearable temperature levels; but they are receding.

“In my mind there is no doubt that the drastic changes in the Arctic will be the biggest issue on the planet in the coming years,” the photographer believes.

“Those photographs are my way of honouring the true Arctic heroes in the North.”

Ragnar Axelsson (RAX)

Ragnar Axelsson was born in Reykjavík in 1958. He borrowed his first Leica from his father, when he was ten years old. When he was 18, he became a photographer for the Icelandic Morgunblaðiðið newspaper, and since then has been documenting nature and the lives of the people in the North. His pictures have been published in Life, Geo, Polka, Newsweek, Stern and Time, among others. His numerous books include “Faces of the North” (2004, new edition 2015), “Last Days of the Arctic” (2010), “Behind the Mountains” (2013), and “Glacier” (2018). He is planning a book on sled dogs for this year. He already received a Leica Oskar Barnack Award Honourable Mention in 2001.

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